Jun 18, 2012 at 04:01pm IST

Battle ready: Advice from Colin Powell for startups

Adopt a winning attitude. Like any football or basketball coach, you always — always — believe you're going to win. Disappointments, failures and setbacks are a normal part of the life cycle of a unit or company. A leader has to constantly say, "We have a problem; let's go and get it" — and convey that attitude with passion and intensity.

Take calculated risks

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I was with Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain and the Cold War were going away and the American people were demanding a peace dividend. Gorbachev looked across the table at me and said, "General, you'll have to find a new enemy." The risk is, what do you do? So Defence Secretary Dick Cheney and I decided, let's cut ourselves 25 per cent.

Battle ready: Advice from Colin Powell for startups

Like any football or basketball coach, you always - always - believe you're going to win, says Powell.

Even with President Bush's approval, we didn't know how Congress would react. It was the toughest bureaucratic battle I ever had to go through: We cut the Defence Department 25 per cent — 500,000 soldiers were let go — and we cut significantly the military industrial complex, telling manufacturers, "You guys may want to return equity to shareholders and get out of the business or merge," and a lot of them did. The lesson: When you have to go through restructuring, design it so your friends have something to rally behind and your enemies have to fight on your battlefield.

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Build a peerless team

Connect strategy to resources: Make sure people know what the job is and give them everything they need to get it done. Then build trust. You do that by being faithful to your purpose, equipping people for that purpose — and treating them kindly. I don't mean being soft or not being able to fire people. But show respect and consideration. Keep telling them, "I couldn't do this without you."

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When you recruit, performance is the best indicator of what someone might be able to do at the next level, but it's not the sole indicator. You really have to get inside somebody and measure them carefully. In the military, we don't hire from the outside; if we want a battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel commanding 700 people, we have to bring in a lieutenant 12 years earlier.

Manage your talent

Everyone has to follow my orders or they are no longer commanders. But because everyone has different experiences, skills and personalities, I try to practice what I call "situational leadership". I adjust my style, within limits, to the strengths and weaknesses of my subordinates so that I understand what they can and can't do — compensating for weaknesses and taking advantage of their strengths.

Plan, then act decisively

My view has always been before you say, "Let's go bomb somebody," think it through. Is there another way to solve this problem or achieve our political objective that doesn't require the loss of life? If you can't, then something kicks in and says, "Let's go do it — let's bring all the force necessary to achieve a decisive victory."

A retired four-star general in the US Army, Colin Powell has served as Secretary of State, National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His new book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership (Harper), came out on May 22. Dan Schawbel is founder of Millennial Branding, a Gen-Y research consultancy, and a forbes.com contributor.